Tour Confidential: Tiger Woods’ Slow Start and Bubba Watson’s Late Collapse

February 4, 2014

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Last week at Torrey, many golf observers said Tiger Woods was rusty and one week means nothing. Do two lousy performances in a row mean anything?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I don't know if it’s the two weeks in a row or body language or what, but his week-in, week-out intensity is not even close to what it used to be. He's changed. He's a way different man today than he was before winning the Torrey Pines U.S. Open and running over that hydrant.

Eamon Lynch, managing editor, (@eamonlynch): After the final round, Tiger announced that he "piped" the driver all day but had seven lip-outs. Yup, that's why he finished T41. He spent more time in the desert than Lawrence of Arabia, so much so that even Kelly Tilghman didn't seem able to muster a defense of his poor play on Golf Channel. He can quickly wipe these two performances from memory by winning, but the reality is the best player in the world doesn't trust his driver on Thursday morning, let alone Sunday afternoon. It's very hard to win majors from that starting point.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): The new Tiger can succumb to slumps. We've learned that much. He hasn't looked any too sharp so far. I'd be interested to know what he and Sean Foley are working on, if anything specific, and how much they're working together.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): I hope not. Nothing would be make the Tour more interesting than to have Tiger return to dominance. But it sure doesn't look good, and unless he changes something (swing coach, gym sessions) I think he will continue to not live up to our unrealistic expectations for him this year.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Not really. It's pretty clear that Tiger is slowly easing his way into the year after a mellow off-season. His old maxim about only showing up at a tournament unless he's ready to win is obviously no longer true. This was a business trip, and a pretty good one — including the exhibition in India, he's gonna clear around $5 million for a week's work. Tiger's whole season is April to August so if he's decided he needs to conserve mental energy in January and February, I say good for him. But it does make the Florida swing quite important for him.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): You can't just brush this start aside. It's shocking that Tiger would enter the year so rusty when this season's majors set up so well for him. There's still plenty of time to get ready for Augusta…but the clock is ticking.

Joe Passov, senior editor, courses and travel, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Not a big deal at this point. Wait until midway through the Florida swing to hit the panic button. Most of 2013's stellar performers, from Scott to Mickelson to Stenson haven't done squat this year.

2. We saw a wild finish at the Waste Management Phoenix Open with Kevin Stadler taking the title after Bubba Watson missed a five-foot putt to tie. Bubba held the lead all day until he made bogey on 16 and 18. What went wrong for Bubba down the stretch?

VAN SICKLE: Bubba looks as jittery as a long-tailed cat in a room full of dogs with machetes. He drove it poorly and wasted some shots around the greens. He didn't birdie either par 5 on the back nine, another gaffe. You don't win in Phoenix by shooting 1 over par in the final round. I'm not surprised he hasn't won since the Masters. I was one of those who raised the possibility then that he may never win again, it was such a life-changing deal for him. I hope he does, because he's a character and people are drawn to him, but a several parts of his game seem pretty loose.

BAMBERGER: I have no sense of Bubba. I hear him in his press conferences and I watch him play and I just have no real sense of him, how much it matters to him. Maybe everything looks kind of dull after winning that Masters. I don't know.

PASSOV: He's so twitchy, it's tough sometimes to tell when he's messed up and when's he's pured it. Basically, he missed shots of every kind — drives into the desert, flared 6-iron, short-siding himself at 13, poor wedge at 17, missed putt, blame the caddie at 18 — just painful to watch, after three days of fun in the sun.

RITTER: Bubba's big backswing is fun to watch, but it isn't exactly a recipe for consistency. He blew a couple iron shots down the stretch that really hurt. You could sort of see a letdown coming after his Masters win — but he's coming out of that now. He'll have his hits and misses, but I expect him to win again soon.

SENS: Bubba has never struck me as a great closer. Even at the Masters, before he hit a shot that was not as challenging as it was made out to be, he missed a fairway as wide as Georgia. We've seen similar patterns from him at the Ryder cup. Good in team competition, but when left under the spotlight on his own, not so much.

SHIPNUCK: Bubba has always had a lot of demons. You know he's desperate to finally get his first win since the Masters and he was simply overwhelmed by the moment. (That can happen with 100,000 drunks shouting at you.) Post-Augusta, he had to adjust to being a superstar and a new dad, and it was understandably bumpy. Now he's pressing hard to get off the schneid. He'll win again, but this doesn't make it any easier going forward.

LYNCH: The last four holes at TPC Scottsdale demand clear thinking and crafty course management, neither of which appear to be among Bubba's strengths. He's an erratic, unpredictable player with a shaky putter on Sunday. It wouldn't have been a surprise had he won by 8, and it's not a surprise that he fumbled it away. One note: we heard a lot this weekend from TV announcers about how this was an ideal venue for Bubba, the everyman among his voluble fans. I suspect the opposite is true. He has the attention span of a goldfish, and no event has more distractions than Phoenix.

3. It was another fraternity/sorority party at the Waste Management Open this weekend, the largest drawing event on PGA Tour. Does golf need more of this sort of spectacle? Less? Or none at all?

PASSOV: Golf needs this event, period. Having attended/covered nearly 30 Phoenix Opens, it's a totally electric atmosphere — especially on Saturday. Sure, the distractions are insane, but a guy who wins here has overcome a lot, so a win at Phoenix (also one of the oldest tournaments on Tour) has to be really satisfying. One of these might be enough, but golf needs a whole bunch more of this, not less.

BAMBERGER: Less. None at all would be better. The joy of golf is the golf. But don't go by me. I could watch baseball without any racing dot games.

VAN SICKLE: Golf needs a little more partying here and there to draw a younger audience, but few tournaments, if any, have the capability or facilities to replicate any part of the Phoenix model.

LYNCH: Golf needs more events that draw huge crowds and deliver charitable dollars at the rate the WMPO does. But does anyone really believe that thousands of bellowing drunks enhance any event? Golf shouldn't run every tournament like a wake, but there's nothing worse than a beer-fuelled fan who thinks he's the star of the show. "Chloroform, please nurse!" as Peter Alliss used to say upon hearing “Get in the hole!” after a tee shot on a par 5.

RITTER: It's the most fan-friendly event in golf. It draws the biggest crowd every year, even on Super Bowl Sunday. It has a B+ field. It's interesting. It's fun. I don't even see how there's a debate — golf needs more events like Scottsdale.

SHIPNUCK: A couple more times a year would be fun. Any more than that would be too much of a good thing.

SENS: Is that a tournament? I thought it was a Miller Lite commercial. It's a great time, no doubt. And it's a refreshing change from the self-seriousness of some venues. But to borrow a phrase from one of the drunken sorority girls I met in the stands this week, it is sui generis. One of a kind and no need to replicate.

4. On Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, his ball nestled into a desert bush, Bubba Watson obtained relief from a gopher hole, with no penalty. Some critics have taken exception, stating that there's no way he would have actually attempted to play the shot, thus he wouldn't be entitled to penalty-free relief. Do we give Bubba the benefit of the doubt?

SHIPNUCK: Sure, he didn't do anything wrong. To his credit, Bubba knew the rules and used them to his advantage — that happens all the time on Tour. The dunces who don't know the rules get all the attention, but players are always pressing for an advantage and they often get it.

BAMBERGER: What Bubba did was fine. He asked for relief from a burrowing animal hole, the rules official gave it to him, his playing partners didn't complain — sounds fine to me.

PASSOV: Yes, we give Bubba the benefit. As a lefty, he had much more of a shot than a righty did — and hey, this is Bubba. Is there any shot he wouldn't try, let alone pull off?

SENS: Yes. We cut him some slack. He's inclined toward the wacky, so it's not so far-fetched to imagine him hitting from a bush. It's not like he asked the crowd to move a boulder for him

LYNCH: It was a creative use of the rules, sanctioned by the rules official on site. There's nothing to debate.

VAN SICKLE: Bubba used the rules to his advantage. Nothing wrong with that. An auld Scotsman would've lectured him about the rub of the green and all, but modern tournament golf has all these free-drop rules that you'd be crazy not to apply if you're the player.

5. After a first-round 63, Rory McIlroy tied for 9th at Dubai, following a mediocre weekend against a less-than-stellar leaderboard. Are you convinced that Rory is back as a legitimate top-5 player?

SHIPNUCK: When it's going well for Rory, the game looks ridiculously easy, as it did during the 63. But as soon as things go pear-shaped, he seems to have the weight of the (golf) world on his shoulders. His swing looks great and his short game pretty sharp — the issues are now metaphysical, which makes it tougher to fix. He's definitely a top-5 talent, but he's now going on 15 months of kicking away these kind of tournaments.

SENS: No way is he a top 5 player. He's a top three player. He'll win another major this year.

LYNCH: He was never not a legitimate top-5 player, even when he was in a slump most of '13. But 6 top 10s in his last eight starts, including a win, signal a return to form.

BAMBERGER: Rory's in the top 5, for sure, along with Woods, Mickelson, McDowell, Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson, King Louie, Keegan Bradley, Justin Rose, among others.

PASSOV: Rory looked great against the best — Adam Scott — in winning the Australian Open late in 2013. He couldn't put enough drives into play the final two rounds in Dubai, though, and he missed way too many momentum-saving mid-length putts. He's looking better and better, but he's not all the way back.

RITTER: Said all winter a McIlroy rebound was coming. The chaos off the course has subsided, and it's not like he just suddenly lost his talent. He's going to win multiple times this year, and yes, he's top 5 right now.

VAN SICKLE: Well, how many times does Rory have to win before we are convinced he's back? He's got one more win than Tiger or Phil in the last three months. That's close enough for me.

6. The late Payne Stewart would have turned 57 this past week. What's your favorite Payne Stewart memory, and which player on Tour compares most favorably with Stewart?

BAMBERGER: Memory: In 1983, I wrote him a letter and he called me. Players like him today: None. Payne knew almost nothing about his swing. And it was beautiful. So athletic, so flowing, so rhythmic, so untutored.

SENS: His conceding the 18th hole to Colin Montgomerie at the 1999 Ryder Cup. You could almost hear Monty saying, I guess not all Americans are a–holes after all. As for today, I never had any dealings with Stewart and can't say what he was really like as a person. But I'll take Graeme McDowell as the guy I'd most want to marry my sister. A guy who doesn't act like he's better than you just cuz he hits the ball farther.

PASSOV: Typically, I think of Stewart's clinching putt and arm-thrust at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, then counseling Mickelson about fatherhood, yet most of all, I recall a memorable photo of Stewart's silhouette, taken at Pebble Beach's 9th or 10th hole, with the ocean in the backdrop. That elegant swing, hands high — and the knickers — form an indelible image. For emotion-fueled, clutch play, overall snarkiness and sartorial splendor, Ian Poulter gets my vote as the closest to Payne Stewart.

VAN SICKLE: I remember when Payne's buddy Paul Azinger holed out from the bunker on the last hole to beat him for the Memorial Tournament, Payne secretly placed banana slices in Zinger's street shoes in his locker. Zinger never admitted whether he fell for the gag and put on the shoes and got squishy banana toes. It's the thought that counts.

SHIPNUCK: I was standing behind the 72nd green at Pinehurst in '99 and will never forget the joy and panache he exhibited. That was pure Payne. Phil plays with a similar style but he's not as much of an extrovert, or hot dog. Ian Poulter has the look and personality but not nearly as much game. Nobody really compares to Payne, which is kind of the point. He was one of a kind.

The PGA Tour Confidential debate continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.